As we begin 2015, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community has many reasons to celebrate and look forward to the future. LGBTQ Americans can marry the person they love in 36 states and counting, an incredible expansion of this right in just a few short years. Workplace protections for LGBTQ employees are more prevalent than ever before, with local governments across the country—including in Madison, Milwaukee, and Appleton—prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
In addition, we saw President Obama expand these protections for federal contractors through executive action, and LGBTQ Americans have greater access than ever to affordable health insurance through the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. As our community marches forward and makes more progress, I want to take a moment to highlight an issue we must continue to tackle head-on: school safety and anti-bullying efforts.
We know bullying and harassment of LGBTQ students and students perceived to be LGBTQ is both widespread and incredibly damaging. According to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) 2013 National School Climate Survey, 74 percent of LGBT students have experienced verbal harassment due to sexual orientation and 55 percent due to their gender identity. Many of these students also face physical harassment and even physical assault because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Even LGBTQ students who do not directly encounter bullying report frequently hearing homophobic and transphobic remarks from peers. The detrimental effects of an unsafe school environment are severe; bullied students experience lower grade point averages, are less likely to go to college, and suffer lower self-esteem and psychological well-being.
As our community makes progress on a number of issues, it is time to utilize the strength of the movement to protect LGBTQ youth. We must take bold, collaborative action to fight unsafe school environments; this is a national problem that demands a response.
In Congress, I am proud to support an array of proposals to create a safe learning environment for all students. In the upcoming weeks, I will introduce the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, a bill requiring colleges and universities receiving federal funds to implement an anti-harassment policy prohibiting harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity, among other criteria. The legislation is named after Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University who ended his life after his roommate filmed and streamed footage of Tyler in his dormitory with another male.
I will also continue to advocate for legislation like the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which requires school districts receiving funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to implement codes of conduct targeting bullying and harassment, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. They offer legal protections for students at all levels of education, providing a vital resource for these students and sending a clear message that targeting LGBTQ youth is unacceptable.
While we need student protections at the federal level, we also need action at the local level to change destructive behaviors and ensure the safety of LGBTQ youth. It is critical that we foster a culture of support for LGBTQ students both in classrooms and throughout communities. Supportive, LGBTQ-conscious faculty and student-run organizations like Gay Straight Alliances (GSA) are vital to providing a comfortable environment for all students. Organizations like GSAFE, which is based in Madison and works to promote and support GSAs, provide additional resources to help educators and students break down bullying culture.
Schools also must be equipped with the resources to educate both faculty and students about issues surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity, including offering positive examples of LGBTQ people and history in the classroom. All of these efforts made at the local level in classrooms and hallways across America are how we will see concrete change and improvement for all students.
From the halls of Congress to classrooms across Wisconsin, we must work together to ensure the safety and security of our students. We must demolish the culture of bullying and harassment affecting too many young people and instead foster an environment in schools that allows each student to reach his or her full potential. I look forward to continuing the fight to improve the lives of LGBT youth and I hope you will join me as we strive to make progress on this issue.
Congressman Mark Pocan is the U.S. Representative for Wisconsin’s second district, which includes Dane, Green, Iowa, LaFayette, Sauk, and portions of Rock and Richland counties.